Few of the slaves and free people of color buried in a grove of cedar and hardwood at the Old Chapel Hill Cemetery are known by name, but a granite marker ensures they will not be forgotten.
Students, dignitaries, residents and relatives gathered Sunday in the town cemetery on UNC’s campus to remember and celebrate their lives. They are not forgotten as long as succeeding generations celebrate their contributions and then make their own, former Chapel Hill Mayor Howard Lee said.
“If there’s anything special that should come out of this experience today, it should be the fact that these folks struggled, but they were committed, they worked hard, they sweat, and they gave all they could to lay the groundwork for those of us who followed,” Lee said. “We should learn from that and commit ourselves in the same fashion.”
The town has recorded just 20 names, although a ground-penetrating radar survey found 475 burials in the two westernmost sections of the roughly 7-acre cemetery. Some overlap and many are grouped, an indication that they might be related, officials have said.
Some of those buried were born or died as slaves. Their children and other free people formed the fabric of a community – among them stone masons, nurses, pastors and decades of workers who helped to build the town and university. More than a hundred unmarked graves are thought to belong to poor whites.
Only a few headstones and living markers of yucca and periwinkle remain; the fieldstones and wooden crosses marking others wore away or were moved.
The idea for an official marker started with retired judge Stanley Peele, who petitioned the town’s Cemeteries Advisory Board in December for a marker with similar wording to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery.
That marker’s Feb. 4 installation drew criticism of its wording and the lack of public discussion or ceremony. The town removed the marker three weeks later, promising a community conversation about the next steps.
The council approved a new marker, bearing an inscription from slave poet George Moses Horton, in June. Standing at 56 inches tall and weighing over 2,200 pounds, the granite stone was mined and carved in Elberton, Georgia, said Greg Campbell, owner of Chatham Monument Co. in Siler City.
Peele dedicated the marker Sunday, recounting how he played among the tombstones as a child.
“This occasion shall echo through the pages of history, but more importantly, through the feelings of our hearts. We’re making something right that has been wrong,” Peele said.
Dolores Hogan Clark and Marjorie Nunn Atkins visited several family gravesites – all with headstones. The marker shows the community’s pride in its cemetery, they said.
“We’ve come a long way,” Clark said. “And we remember those who are buried here and ... those who are not known,” Atkins added.
They recalled how their great-grandmother, freed slave Nellie Strayhorn, would tell them stories before her death in 1950. Her husband Toney Strayhorn, also a freed slave and later a self-trained brick mason, died in 1939.
The town will continue its work to identify and commemorate those buried in the cemetery, Mayor Pam Hemminger said.
“We owe each person buried there our deep gratitude for the work those souls did to transform the University of North Carolina and the town into the beautiful place that it is today,” she said.
“Thus we, like birds, retreat/To groves, and hide from ev’ry eye/Our slumb’ring dust will rise and meet/its morning in the sky.”
– George Moses Horton, a former slave who sold his poems to UNC students and became the first African-American poet published in the South